Oooh, scary-sounding chemical names! It must be harmful!
Before we dive headfirst into the utter rubbish that is this meme, let’s talk about the science behind fluoridation. Fluorine is element 9 on the periodic table – you know, that big chart you had to study in high school but probably haven’t looked at since then. In the very rare occasions when fluorine isn’t paired up with other elements, it tends to travel in pairs of its own kind as the molecule F2. Fluorine the element is a nasty, nasty customer: it reacts vigorously with water, glass, metal…just about anything. You would not want to gargle with water containing fluorine.
Because fluorine is so reactive, though, you almost never find it alone in nature; it’s far more common in compounds as the fluoride ion. Fluoride can be bad news for your health in large enough doses, but it’s nowhere near as dangerous as fluorine. In fact, fluoride has some health benefits: science has shown that small amounts of fluoride can bind to dental enamel and prevent tooth decay.
Many toothpastes contain fluoride to fight cavities. In the United States, toothpaste usually contains between 1000 and 1100 parts per million (ppm) fluoride. (European toothpastes may contain even more fluoride.) That amounts to about 0.24 milligrams of fluoride in a pea-sized dollop of toothpaste, which is what most toothpaste manufacturers recommend.
Many water facilities employ fluoride for the same reason. The recommended concentration of 2 ppm is intended to prevent fluoride from causing tooth discoloration and other minor health effects in the local populace. Two parts per million is a miniscule concentration compared to the fluoride concentration in toothpaste; on the other hand, you consume much more water than you do toothpaste (hopefully).
The lethal dose of fluoride, by the way, is far, far greater than what you’d encounter while brushing your teeth or drinking water from your tap. You could eat many tubes’ worth of toothpaste before you stood a better than average chance of keeling over from fluoride poisoning. I know, I know…there’s a lot of territory betwen perfect health and death. You don’t want to experience any negative health effects from using fluoridated toothpaste. Neither does the American Dental Association, which is why they have established guidelines about how much toothpaste is safe to use. The Environmental Protection Agency has also developed a set of (non-enforceable) rules about how much flouride is acceptable in drinking water. Local governments that add flouride to drinking water systems take these recommendations into consideration.
If you’ve been paying attention, then by now you should be asking “If the flouride levels in toothpaste are low enough that they won’t actually hurt you unless you go on a serious toothpaste bender, then why do toothpaste tubes urge you to contact the Poison Control Center and your next of kin if you accidentally swallow the stuff?” Simple as CYA. The American Dental Association has opined that the Poison Control warning is unnecessary, but the FDA, in the spirit of not getting sued by somebody who was harmed by his or her own ineptitude, believes that the scary warning labels should stay. If it preserves the health of one person who otherwise would have glazed his Christmas turkey with toothpaste, then good. The problem is that these labels unnecessarily worry people and provide fodder for the crowd who believes that the government is stupid and/or evil.
Okay, given recent events, it’s hard to argue that certain people in the government are not stupid and/or evil, but those aren’t the same people that recommend regulations regarding fluoride levels in toothpaste and drinking water. Safe fluoride concentrations are determined by scientific assessment. Scientists are aware of the health risks associated with over-fluoridation, and they have come to the conclusion that the benefits outweigh the very minor risks. If you believe that your scientific insight makes you uniquely qualified to dispute those scientists’ fluoride recommendations, then please, submit your findings to a peer-reviewed journal. Otherwise you’re just propagandizing. Please stop.